Published in: H Le Mag (France) issue 2
Interviewed by Vincent Martin
Source: The Iron Maiden Commentary
IRON MAIDEN – Inside the belly of the Beast
Iron Maiden, living legend of modern du Heavy Metal, are adding a twentieth candle on their birthday cake. From the very beginnings up to the massive Best of the Beast compilation, Steve Harris – the gaffer of the Maiden enterprise– tells us all about it. Absolutely everything.
London's burning. Punk is everywhere and every single club of the British capital sees performances by rebellious youths who swore to bring the system down. They also want to to tear to shreds those ageing rock dinosaurs who, with their gold-lined pockets, incarnate the apathy of this music that was originally destined to air the anger of a disillusioned generation. It is within this context that 19-year-old Steve Harris formed his own band. The thing is, young Steve has long hair and, no matter what, punk rock is definitely not his cup of tea. He's a fan of Deep Purple, Genesis, Black Sabbath, Yes and Wishbone Ash (basically all the bands that any self-respecting punk reviles, and we should add Led Zeppelin to the list) and really couldn't care less about tearing society apart. Steve Harris is from the Old School. Music is music, and the call for revolution is simply something else. Let's not mix up things that have nothing in common. However, the punk hurricane is devastating everything in its wake and if Iron Maiden don't start plying in the same style, the doors to the clubs will be closed for them for quite a while (and that without mentioning those of the record companies). Anyway, a few Northern pubs still accept their performances and, the punk fashion won't last too long, although the first hints of the coming new wave are already apparent. It's a long way to the top...
In the calm and quiet of an English afternoon, Steve Harris welcomes us into his home. His abode is like him, humble and humane. No fancy decorum. But the echoes of a few pharaonic tours are still resounding (an Eddie fromt World Slavery Tour stage set awaits the enquiring visitor in a corridor), as well as those of many battles won through blood and sweat (a massive collection of gold and platinum records harvested all around the world). As you go through the house, the long history of Iron Maiden becomes clearer and the memories come back: a record bought at the local supermarket because of a promising cover, one night in April of '82 in Paris where some 5,000 fans tear apart the métro, the condensation at the Espace Balard where we are a 10,000 crowd where 8,000 would already have been packed, a fantastic gig in Bercy during the Winter of '86 where the band is welcomed like messiahs, the crowd of Donington in '88, a Californian trip in '92 for a televised broadcast with Bruce driving the van that's taking us to the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre where Maiden are going to kick 15,000 arses, and last year in Bucharest where, in almost surreal conditions, Maiden featuring Blaze Blayley were going to rip it up in front of an 8,000-strong Rumanian crowd going berserk. Holy shit, we've gone a long way, Maiden and I, and probably you too, as you read these lines. We all share a bit of personal history with Iron Maiden.
What exactly was Iron Maiden, originally? Was it the band you'd always wanted to see but didn't exist, as Gene Simmons once said?
Not even that, really. To understand things better, we have to go back to the time I was 17 or 18. I used to play in this band called Smiler, and all the others were 26 or 27. I thought it was great because they had much more experience than me. So, of course, I thought I was going to learn lots of stuff, which I did. We used to play mostly blues and rhythm'n'blues. We sued to cover Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac, Pete Green. As time went by, I started to write my own songs, stuff like 'Innocent Exile' or 'Burning Ambition'. But nobody in the band liked it. They found the songs too complex, with too many rhythm changes. But what I wanted to do was to get away from the tradional rock'n'roll structure. I wanted something more aggressive and with loads of guitars. So, quite naturally, I left and I started my own band. I was 19. What I did at first was to look for people who could understand the way I write, and Davey (Murray) was the first one to believe in my vision.
This particular sound, the interaction between the guitars, was all that already thare right from the start?
It evolved with time, mostly with the new songs. In fact, there was a time when we only were a three-piece, which was a bit of a problem because I absolutely wanted two guitars like in Wishbone Ash. As soon as we found a second guitar player, I suppose that it all went quickly. We could see right away that it had added a little something to Maiden's music and that people really enjoyed it. It's around that time that we started to have a little following that was appearing around Iron Maiden. people started making their own t-shirts, like "Charlotte Rules", because we were too skint to have any made for sale.
You only have to listen to the first album to realise that the band already had a strong background, although we were not always really aware of what we were doing in the studio. In a way, this first album is a kind of "best of". It compiles our best songs from the first four years, as we went into the studio with really strong material. Before we recorded it, we'd had four years to learn, to grow, to write... I think it's very important that a band doesn't grow too fast. The production of the record is quite iffy, mostly when it comes to the rhythm guitars, which really suffered from the mixing. This album could have been perfect if we'd done it with Martin Birch.
Things were going pretty fast: the first album was really successful, we toured with Kiss in Europe... Then we get Martin Birch and Adrian Smith. With Adrian in the band, we finally had the right formula. Dave and him were friends since they were kids and they'd formed their first band together. I was relieved because we finally had someone who could really work with Dave and even build something. When Martin Birch started working with us, he told us after a few days that he would have liked to do our fisrt album and that, even better, he was actually waiting for our phone call. That was a bit of a shock for me because, as I told him, he was the guy who'd produced all my favourite bands, like Sabbath, Purple, or Whitesnake, and that we thought he was out of reach (laughs). There were only three new songs on Killers: 'Murders In The Rue Morgue', 'Genghis Khan' and 'Killers'. The rest had been put on hold during the recording of the first album, only because there wasn't enough room on the record.
Right after the Killers album, you then embark for the first time on a real world tour...
Yes, Europe and Japan as headliners, and opening for Judas Priest and UFO in the States.
At that time, Killers didn't sell well in the US, but the impact that this record had on the few who bought it was incredible. Metallica, Slayer, or Anthrax never hid the fact that this particular album had more or less triggered their respective vocations...
Many American musicians came to see me and told me that Killers, and even the first album, were great records... But we were selling almost nothing over there at that time, Iron Maiden sold 30,000 copies, and Killers maybe 80,000...
I needed a long time to understand what kind of relation there could have been between Thrash and what we used to play at that time, but after some 15 years, I'm beginning to understand a bit more (laughs). When we first went to the States, we knew that we had nothing to lose and our aim was that people should leave the venue thinking about Iron Maiden and not about the headliner. Those who saw us when we were on the road with Priest and UFO must still remember it because no one, no one was playing as fast as we did and no one was so aggressive towards the audience as we were. At every gig, we were on the edge of the stage, looking everyone straight in the eye and pointing at those who were still sitting, insulting them. These are great memories...
Then Paul Di'Anno left the band with a catastrophic timing...
"Catastrophic" is the right word. We'd just finished a world tour that was opening fantastic new horizons, we were about to become really big, then bang! this happens. That was a big trauma. I didn't want to believe that we'd gone that far to end up in this kind of situation. But, at the same time, what could we do? Carrying on with someone who was systematically against whatever decision we made? Who didn't want to tour? We'd been already through two months of constant tension and our morale was at its lowest, we simply couldn't carry on like this.
THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST
This is the first album for which we had to write everything in a bit less than three weeks. Unlike the previous ones where the material had already been written ages before, this time we had nothing. That was my first experience with this type of pressure and I really had to work my guts out. 'Gangland', and even 'Invaders', aren't exactly unforgettable pieces, but the rest is really top-notch.
It is also the first album with Bruce Dickinson, who admitted quite openly that things could have taken a really bad turn between you two...
Le first year with Bruce was particularly... complicated. He absolutely wanted to question my position within the band. Personally, I really didn't care. All I wanted was someone to sing my songs and who would be willing to tour at our pace and do his job as a frontman, which meant being the point of focus both on and off stage. I told him that 'til I was blue in the face, but to no avail...
We were really successful all over the world, but, honestly, I couldn't help but wonder how long this was going to last. On stage, as soon as I'd go a bit more to the front, he'd just come over and push me. I understood later that it was his way to find his place within the band, to make us realise that he was there to stay. And, as soon as we started working on the Piece Of Mind album, Bruce changed completely. He arrived with his own songs and everything was fine.
PIECE OF MIND
Iron Maiden was getting bigger by the minute. ...Beast was Number One at home, the tour was long, but we made our mark almost everywhere. In the meantime, Clive Burr left and Nicko arrived.
Still according to Bruce, Nicko joining the band was a turning point in the band's career. He explained that, with a very technical drumming like Nicko's, you could start writing more complex songs, because Clive's drumming, very close to Ian Paice's, didn't allow for such things...
That's right, but Clive didn't leave for musical reasons. Not at all. We never had any problems with him in the studio, but on stage... One night he'd play too fast, the next he'd play too slow. It was on the road in the States during the Beast tour, that I finally had enough. I couldn't play with him anymore, it was ridiculous. One evening on the tour, he was playing so slow that we didn't know what to do anymore. We were just looking at each other and, at one point, Bruce went backstage and came back with a cover, then he went to lie down next to the drum riser (laugh).
With Piece Of Mind, you really grabbed the States by the throat. The album went to platinum and, mostly, you started filling arenas...
It was a big gamble. The buzz around us was so huge that we knew we simply had to make the most of it. And it worked. In case of problem, we had Quiet Riot opening for us, a band that was selling five times more than us. But what's funny is that, when Quiet Riot went back to play the same venues as they did with us, it was a complete flop. And this is also what happened with Twisted Sister the following year, after they'd opened for us. This means, basically, that if you don't built up a solid base, you're not worth much, even if you sell seven million albums.
Nice and quiet recording. We'd just released a successful album, and all we wanted was to release another one as quickly as possible. With hindsight, I must admit that Powerslave is not my favourite album. Only four songs are really strong: 'Rime Of The Ancient Mariner', 'Powerslave', '2 Minutes To Midnight' and 'Aces High'. The rest is OK, but there aren't any real classics. And then, there was this massive tour...
From which the band came out in tatters...
Fourteen months, that was obviously too long. But we were all willing to do it. When Rod (Rod Smallwood, manager of the band) came up with the idea of this gigantic tour, we all said, "Yeah, fine, let's go for it. No problem". In the end, we were all so burned out that we took a really long break. Bruce was the most affected, which is why he didn't write anything on the Somewhere In Time album. It was crazy, I mean, six nights in a row each week for over a year! We thought that we could cope with that, that we'd be strong enough to do it all the way, whereas, retrospectively, we weren't ready to face it. I was lucky not to be too affected. Physically, I was knackered, but not mentally. After six months of recovery, I was back on track, but Bruce... Even all that time wasn't enough for him to recuperate. He was unable to write anything. So Adrian more or less took over.
SOMEWHERE IN TIME
Adrian wrote 'Wasted Years' and 'Stranger In A Strange Land', a couple of songs that are slightly different for Iron Maiden. I remember, we were at our headquarters in Jersey and Adrian got me to listen to some stuff he'd written, but there was nothing really fantastic. It was some kind of cheap AC/DC. As I was leaving and the tape was still running, I heard two great riffs. So I went back and asked him, "What's that?" and he tells me, "Just stuff I wrote, but I didn't want to play them to you 'cause it's far remote from what Maiden does." And, well, it was indeed a bit outsside of our field of activity, but in the end, these are probably the best tracks.
Somewhere In Time is said to be Maiden's most sophisticated album, and also the 'cleanest'...
This wasn't originally our goal. We'd given ourselves six weeks to write the material in Jersey, but during the first four weeks, we didn't do anything. Well, we were playing football, darts, but we didn't play any music. Then, everything fell into place in a weird manner. We had to write quickly, then we went to the Bahamas to record the rhythm section. As Adrian didn't want to record the guitars at the same place, we went to the Wiseloord Studios in Holland. I don't really see any 'clean' side to this album, but anyway, I'm really happy with it. Strangely enough, the Americans didn't like it. We sold loads over there, but not a single review was positive. I still have good memories of the tour. When we started, Bruce was again feeling well and Adrian felt more comfortable than before.
SEVENTH SON OF A SEVENTH SON
This when problems started with Adrian. We'd realised that he was tired and not so much into it at the end of the Somewhere On Tour, which was worrying us a bit. So, before we left for Munich to to go the studio, we all went to him and asked him the big question: "Adrian, do you still want to be part of this band?" Quite surprisingly, he said yes. So, to our relief, we started working on Seventh Son... This is probably my favourite album, the logical progression after Somewhere In Time. From the guitar-synths, we switched to real keyboards.
How about 20th August 1988?
Hmm, our first appearance at Donington. Something really big for us. Our biggest gig on our home ground, with 107,000 people. We had maybe a bit more than six thousand guests on that day.
Two kids lost their lives during the gig of Guns N'Roses. If you'd known, would you have cancelled your show?
I don't know. Maybe. We were so nervous already that no one wanted to tell us about it before the gig. I think that if we'd known, everyone would have freaked out. Afterwards, when we were told, it simply turned into a nightmare...
One year later comes the period of solo albums: Bruce's, Adrian's...
A pretty troubled period. At first, it never was a problem that Bruce would go and do his thing. But I just couldn't foreseen the consequences. At that time, Bruce was just hyperactive. He had loads of running projects: his book, his record, and Iron Maiden. It all started quite simply, actually, we were contacted to write a song for the soundtrack of Nightmare On Elm Street – Part 51. As we were all busy writing for the new album, I just declined the offer. Then Bruce went "No problem, I'll do it." After a while, I heard his song ('Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter'), and I told him "This one's for us, Bruce, you can't keep that one for yourself.". He was quite surprised at my enthusiasm, but, of course, he accepted. But in the meantime, somebody had convinced him to do his own album and he'd already written the songs. Apparently, this new situation had somehow changed him and it was obvious for all to see that he was having the time of his life doing his own thing. He just wasn't the same when we started the No Prayer On The Road tour...
NO PRAYER FOR THE DYING
Adrian left the band just as we were about to enter the studio. It was the same as before Seventh Son..., he didn't look happy and we didn't have a clue of what was wrong with him. So we asked him again: "Adrian, are you really sure that you want to stay in the band?" And then, surprisingly, he answers that he doesn't really know, that he doesn't really know what he wants anymore. To us, it was clear, and it wasn't out of the question to carry this burden any further. So we made the decision for him... just two days before we were supposed to enter the studio. Luckily enough, Janick could jump in almost right away. He auditioned and it went fine.
In terms of production, we wanted something at the opposite of Seventh Son..., we wanted to go back to something simpler. This is why we used the Rolling Stone Mobile, which we'd already used for the Maiden England video. The album surprised quite a lot of people, but there are a few good things on it. I don't really have many good memories of the tour, though. Bruce was bored out of his brains, that much was obvious.
FEAR OF THE DARK
Quite stragely, Bruce seemed to be yet again more involved when we started working on this one. But now I realise that some of his songs were very explicit clue as to the direction we wanted to take. But never mind, Fear Of The Dark is a strong album. The tour was supposed to take place in two parts, finishing in October, then restarting in Spring. But Bruce already knew by Christmas that he was leaving, and we were told only two weeks before the beginning of the second part of the tour. We decided not to cancel the tour, although the conditions were pretty bad to start with.
In the meantime, you played Donington for the second time...
Yes, and that was great. We only worried about how we could make it even better than the first one. Finally, everyone told us afterwards that the gig was without any doubt better than the one in '88, and that's also what I think. But I still bear a grudge against the British press who speculated about the fact that we only sold 72,000 tickets. What you need to know is that, back in '88, we'd only sold 66,000 tickets before the festival, then another 40,000 on the day of the gig. But at that time, there was no limit to the number of people coming in. In '92, the capacity of the festival was limited to 72,000, and we couldn't sell any tickets on the day. But anyway, everybody started making those stupid comparisons and said that we were about to go under. I don't think anyone has sold that many tickets at Donington ever since.
We won't go back to Blaze Bayley's arrival in the band, as this is quite recent, but the choice seemed to have been made as soon as Bruce announced that he was leaving...
Blaze was the most logical choice, and I knew that right away. But, at the same time, we weren't in any kind of rush and we could take our time to explore different possibilities... I hate changes, that's no secret. They are a bad thing, like in football when some transfers can tear a team apart. But these things happen and we have to cope with them. It isn't just about finding a good singer, 'cause there are many really good singers out there, but we needed somebody who could really be a part of the team. Because, it may be perfect as far as the voice is concerned, but, on a more personal level, that's something entirely different. Blaze was perfect on all these levels. Even now, I'd go as far as saying that he understood better what Iron Maiden is really about than Bruce ever did.
THE X FACTOR
This is the riskiest album that Iron Maiden has recorded in a while. New singer, new producer (Nigel Green).
Didn't you want to work with Martin Birch anymore?
That's got nothing to do with it. Martin ceased all activity after Fear Of The Dark, and he was only working with us because he didn't want to do anything else anymore. As I co-produced Fear... with him, I'm quite familiar with his techniques and I know what to do. It wasn't a problem. I chose Nigel Green because of his background and because he can adadt really well. He can work with AC/DC or Def Leppard as well as with Billy Ocean or Iron Maiden. My greatest fear is a producer like Mutt Lange who has his very own sound and who doesn't grant much importance to the artist he produces. The X Factor is not perfect, but we did well. The songs are great on stage, even after a year playing them. Some people told me that they were much better live than on the album, and that's true. But I'd like to point out that this isn't new. Iron Maiden's main concern has always been to retranscribe in the studio what we're able to do on stage.
So you're quite confident as to the future?
Totally. The next album will be even much stronger, you'll see. I can even tell you that it'll be very different from this one. The X Factor can almost be considered a transition record, a bit like the teenage years of the new Iron Maiden. You only have to listen to the way Blaze sings now, it's totally different than a year ago.
THE BEST OF THE BEAST
I said it and I'll say it again: we're not gonna split! (laughs) No more than we're going to leave EMI. We're releasing a compilation, and that's all there is to it. It was simply the right time.
Iron Maiden is 20 years old this year and I think that you sold just over 40 million albums. What comes first to your mind when you look back now?
I think about the very beginning when we wanted to make it big in Britain. We were hoping to become popular throughout the country, one day. We didn't even have a clue that there was a big wide world out there only waiting to listen to our music! (laughs). Right now, I don't want to make any kind of summary, I'll only say that everything's been brilliant and that the band is still standing because we still want to record albums and get on stage. The day I'll be tired of it, when it'll be a chore to go on stage, then, on that day, everything will be over. I don't want to lie to myself and I don't want to lie to the fans, although they are not as stupid as some may say.
We were together at the Metallica gig in Bercy last night...
I was really touched when Jason started playing 'Hallowed Be Thy Name' and when they played 'Wrathchild' a bit later. I know that these people have listened to Iron Maiden. Lars may be listening to other things nowadays, but he used to be a fan. We influenced Metallica, and a lot of bands that are quite small right now, but who may make it big in the future, have been influenced in turn by Metallica. I like this idea.
What are you the most happy with?
Basically to be able to say honestly that Iron Maiden's success is the band's own doing. We never compromised, except maybe on an internal level just between the five members of the band itself. Iron Maiden always kept its own course. Whatever we've done, we've done it following our instinct, without any second thoughts, and it always worked out fine.